You don’t “drive” a dogsled. You simply hold on tight and try to not fall off.
My team of Alaskan huskies only have one speed—forward, and as a dabbling amateur musher, I only have one function—to slow us down.
I jump on the rubber drag pad whenever we rocket down steep slopes, or those moments when my dogs whip around some tight curve in the forest. At times, my sled tilts dangerously high, so that I am skidding around with just one ski on the ice, cartoon-like. “Woah” gets me nowhere, but there is a kind of brake I can jump on, and something that resembles a grappling hook that I can toss into the snow.
My dogs dislike the snow anchor—and they pull at it, testing its hold, yapping and yelping until they pull it free and propel this animal machine forward across the ice.
It’s all for fun—this is my vacation, I keep telling myself. In place of some sandy beach, there is only the diamond-dusted snow; instead of some turquoise seafront, there is only the frozen white curve of the Chena River; and instead of an umbrella-dressed cocktail, I carry bottled water in the pocket of my parka—frozen into a clear cylinder of solid ice.
What seemed like a fun idea so many months ago is now my reality. The freezing wind burns my cheeks, makes my eyes water, and leaves white beads of ice on my beard. Aside from the ever-blowing wind, the only sound is the soft tapping of dogs’ paws on snow. I watch their furry bodies arch and jump, again and again, leaping across the white landscape that made them. They are beautiful, these unstoppable dogs, undaunted by winter or distance.
Travelers are born from the challenges they face, and in Alaska, the forever snow and empty miles gave us the dogsleds we ride for fun. Not so long ago, the Alaskan postmen used dogsleds to carry the mail—and this very trail that I’m traveling was once his route. It must have been a lonely ride, pounding out the slow miles of snowy track—but today, right now, it is a gift, to enter the white wonderland unseen by cars and trucks and most people.
I imagine so much of Alaska is just like this hidden world the dogs are showing me—a world of crystalline mountains and silent woods haunted by caribou and moose. I’ve seen forests just like this in Russia, with papery white birch trees, all swaying in the wind, performing the dance of winter.
After twenty miles my knees begin to ache, and I can feel Alaska moving beneath my feet, every yard of it, up and down, hard and soft. The dogs keep pulling, well past the pale orange light of the four o’clock dusk. Mists of snow eddy across the flats, like a thousand horizontal ghosts rushing south.
The dogs and I pass through, onward into the forest, into the evening, and to our camp, where a wood-burning stove warms my fingers back to life.
Inside the tent, we are warm and happy, rosy-cheeked with bellies full of hot food. Outside, my dogs are nestled in straw, dusted white from the snow flurries wafting down upon us. The full moon lifts up from the Chena River, one star becomes a thousand stars, the Milky Way paints its own snowy band across the sky that meets the white stream of smoke from our little stovepipe.
Bundled into my sleeping bag, warm as a muffin, I realize that I am happy and content—I am actually vacationing. My dogs have carried me twenty-five miles to camp, and tomorrow, we will travel twenty-five more. Together, we are traveling across Alaska, the dogs and I, though clearly, they are doing all the work. I’m along for the ride, literally, but I am truly grateful.
Come morning, I unzip the tent and mince through the newly fallen snow to thank them, all my dogs—M&M, Swiss, Nyack, Billy, and Themla—one by one, thank you for bringing me here.
For more information on dogsledding in Alaska, please visit Paws for Adventure.